On April 24th, eighteen youth organizers, two junior facilitators, and five staff members from YO S.O.S. traveled to Princeton-Blairstown Center in New Jersey for an overnight retreat that was filled with leadership and team building challenges, a workshop on the importance of self care, and many memorable bonding experiences filled with joyful laughter and cheers of encouragement. 

The group gathered on Wednesday morning at the YO S.O.S office, where they set intentions for the trip before heading off to the wilderness of Princeton, New Jersey. Many of the Youth Organizers set intentions around bringing positive energy and building trust between one another, others were eager to leave the city for a quieter environment, some were excited to partake in new experiences and challenges, and others wanted to have a dance-off and hear stories around the evening campfire.

Wednesday’s programming included a series of team challenges led by Princeton-Blairstown staff in the surrounding woods. Some of the challenges were puzzlers that required clever thinking and strong communication to accomplish successfully. Others were more physical and required all Youth Organizers to work together and lean on each other for support to complete the mission. After a hearty dinner, YO S.O.S took part in a workshop on self-care and stress management. Youth Organizers practiced deep breathing techniques and discussed the pressures they face in their lives. The importance of creating a self-care plan and partaking in stress relieving activities were highlighted. The workshop concluded with a guided visualization to practice self calming techniques.

During free time, the youth showed off their basketball, football, and track skills in the grass. They also bonded over hot chocolate and board games. One of the highlights of the day was simply spending time in the sun and enjoying the calm outdoor environment.

In the evening, YO S.O.S. gathered around a campfire in which everyone shared what they were grateful for by adding additional “keylog” sticks to keep the fire roaring. It was a beautiful expression of the youth’s appreciations and their understanding that any fire can easily go out with the help of others in their lives, or be made stronger by those around them. Responses included appreciation for the new friendships they have created with other youth organizers in YO S.O.S., acknowledgement of supportive people in their lives, and recognition of family members both alive and deceased. The campfire was followed by the making of delicious s’mores and an evening sing along. At the end of the night, youth organizers retreated to quaint log cabins where they quickly fell asleep after a long day of activities.

On Thursday morning, the group arose early for breakfast followed by an invigorating activity led by Princeton-Blairstown staff. Each youth were equipped with helmets and harnesses and assisted in climbing a tall rock wall. It was a challenging activity in which all youth were able to overcome their fears and assist each other in climbing as high up as possible. This was followed by an obstacle course where participants had to team up to reach the top plank in under five minutes by problem solving together and encouraging one another. 

The retreat concluded with an activity in which everyone was seated in a circle and passed around a roll of thread that they wrapped around their wrists. As the thread was passed from person to person, each participant shared one thing they were taking away from this experience and one compliment to the person sitting to their left. One response to what they were taking away from this experience was, “I found out I can push myself further and accomplish my goals.” One Youth Organizer stated that they had learned the value of, “Being open minded and speaking up when I have something to say.” Another Youth Organizer reflected, “I liked bonding with everyone and spending time away from the city.” Summing it up, one Youth Organizer cleverly commented, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” By the end of this activity each person was communally attached to each other. Many youth left with their portion of the thread still wrapped around their wrists as a memory of the time they spent together. As always, this period of reflection was closed with the YO S.O.S “Hug It Out” activity in which everyone wrapped their arms around the next to make one large circle to acknowledge their collective power and purpose, and chanted the chosen words for the group that day. The youth choose to chant “family.”  

The group returned to Crown Heights on Thursday afternoon invigorated by the experience they all shared. Youth rested on the bus ride as some discussed future ways of staying in touch and checking in with each other. The group is now preparing for their culminating project, a music video debut and theatre performance – with renewed energy, purpose, and motivation.